Amid a thriving labor market, an employment crisis might seem difficult to fathom. The unemployment rate continues to hover around 3.5% and multi-decade lows, according to data published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

But behind the seemingly endless opportunities is a hard truth: Millions lack the professional and practical skills to secure jobs that pay a family-sustaining wage, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Landing those jobs is critical to lifting people out of poverty.

This is why now, more than ever, nonprofit organizations and the government have an opportunity to work with employers to address the skills gap. Such efforts could help individuals escape poverty, while giving companies different talent pipelines to explore amid a skilled worker shortage. The benefits to both sides would improve the nation’s economic outlook overall. 

The Power of Partnerships

Nonprofit job training organizations are becoming more innovative, which is expanding their ability to serve the underemployed. When Cara Collective began in Chicago in 1991, founder Tom Owens used his own car to drive job seekers from shelters to interviews at local businesses. Decades later, Cara’s processes have dramatically matured, offering a holistic approach to its applicants based on individual needs and wants.

“While there is a linear progression, our service delivery model is more like a sphere, where people are accessing the resources and services they need at the time,” says Joe Mutuc, Cara Collective’s chief business development officer. “When we first welcome someone into Cara, it’s really about listening. What is that person’s life situation? What is their work experience? What are their aspirations and goals?”

Cara offers three training pathways: a foundational workshop series working toward self-actualization and building skills like conflict resolution, a leadership workshop series with more traditional job-readiness classes, and experiential learning through transitional work with a Cara Collective social enterprise. The next step is finding not just any job but one that provides long-term income stability. That’s where relationships between workforce development programs and local businesses are critical.

“Just because an employer has jobs doesn’t mean they’re a good fit,” says Mutuc. “We take a lot of time vetting companies, just as they’re vetting us, and the best things happen when we can build a truly mutually beneficial relationship.” 

The payoff has been huge: In the second half of 2021, Cara placed 441 job seekers in employment, with an average hourly wage of $16.50—well above the minimum wage in Illinois of $12 per hour. “It’s understanding that the job is the pivot point for all of those needs to be met down the road. If we’re only focusing on getting jobs, then we’re taking our eye off of the long-term trajectory of the individual.”

By strengthening connections with key employers, skills and training organizations can build a pipeline for opportunities. In Portland, Oregon, Worksystems trains job seekers in a variety of in-demand occupational skills in fields such as recycling and waste management, health care, and financial services. As workers left their jobs in droves during the pandemic, employers were increasingly interested in partnering with Worksystems to fill skills gaps, says Patrick Gihring, the organization’s chief program officer.

Worksystems sets mutual goals with its employer partners to set hiring goals and develop relevant training. “It’s an investment for the company to put up their time, so we want to make sure it ends up being a win-win for everyone by getting people hired,” says Gihring.

One recent initiative paired job seekers with a local recycling and waste removal company, with the latter providing volunteer instructors and some funding. “Our participants got hands-on training through a ride-along and drive-along program, which gave them the chance to know what the job is really like—it can be cold, wet, noisy,” Gihring says. 

Of the 45 people in training, 17 were hired by partner companies and seven were hired by other employers—a testament to the demand for skilled labor. An additional 14 students graduated from the program in August 2022. Overall, about 90% of Worksystems’ participants complete their training, and of those, about 80% are hired, Gihring says. 

But training and skills development shouldn’t necessarily stop after someone gets a job—particularly for those who have gaps in their employment history, because keeping a job and navigating the life changes it brings can be a challenge. For the first year after they land a job, Cara participants have access to monthly coaching and career planning, as well as a robust network of alumni.

“It’s understanding that the job is the pivot point for all of those needs to be met down the road,” says Mutuc. “If we’re only focusing on getting jobs, then we’re taking our eye off of the long-term trajectory of the individual.”

A New Path for Opportunities

The barriers to sustainable employment can seem endless for those in poverty—particularly those in historically underserved communities. About 90% of Cara Collective’s participants are African American or Latinx, and more than 40% have a felony conviction in their past. Likewise, Worksystems works with a disproportionate number of people of color and those with a history of incarceration.

“There are so many structural barriers to people in poverty,” says Gihring. “Someone who wants to go into a construction or health care job will screen themselves out if they have children, for example, because they can’t afford childcare. If they have a criminal background, they will sometimes disqualify themselves.”

While stipends and grants can defray the costs of childcare and training, a criminal record can be a much more onerous hurdle. In Philadelphia, an estimated 20% of all residents have a criminal record—a number that jumps to almost 60% in low-income, high-arrest, predominantly minority communities, according to Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity. 

While it might seem daunting, submitting a pardon application is a huge step toward finding a better job—and often a successful one. The Board of Pardons in Pennsylvania recommends about 85% of applicants to the governor, who in turn has approved 97% of those recommendations.